When you eat today, thank a farmer -- and an illegal immigrant.
Here in the Central Valley, they are joined at the hip: the farmer who needs his crops picked and the men and women who cross the border with only dreams and the clothes on their backs.
Farmers are revered for being the backbone of our Valley economy. Illegal immigrants are reviled for breaking the law and having children who need schooling and medical attention.
Americans have been demanding immigration reform since the day after President Ronald Reagan signed the last major piece of legislation in 1986. But there are two perpetual roadblocks: a majority of Americans oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants and powerful business interests -- though they won't admit it -- like things just the way they are.
So, we get gridlock and rhetoric. Republicans, Democrats and talk-show hosts give impassioned speeches to rile the masses, then retire to their homes cleaned by -- guess who?
Meanwhile, the illegal immigrant is picking lettuce, mowing lawns, cutting meat and figuring how to put the kids through college without attracting the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is the sentiment that people shouldn't be rewarded for breaking the law.
OK, I get that. Why then aren't millions of Americans demanding that farmers, hotel owners and construction companies pay big fines or be forced to shut their doors for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants?
Why do Americans reward businesses that offer jobs as an inducement to sneak across the border?
And why aren't people demanding that businesses use E-Verify, a government online program, to check the residency status of job applicants?
The short answer: It's easy for some people to demonize illegal immigrants; it requires a bit of nerve and intellectual honesty to challenge entire industries and the politicians who serve them.
So, around here, we prefer self-delusion over self-examination, rallying behind farmers (and their fight for water) while protesting the public costs of illegal immigration.
Farmers are in a tough spot. The financial margins for many crops are thin. Americans are unwilling to do field work, nor are they much good at it. But when farmers fail to use E-Verify or accept obviously phony documents as evidence of residency, they are complicit in the law-breaking.
Heaven forbid if we ever summon the political will to fix immigration. Farmers will face even bigger challenges because reform begins with tighter borders.
The best avenue for agriculture is to wean itself from cheap labor through mechanization and higher wages, and to toe the line by really checking documents and using the current guest-worker program -- however flawed it might be.
Similar advice applies for all of us. If we really want reform, we best prepare for higher food prices and to pay more for everything from tree trimming to manicures.
We're all part of this complicated, contradictory, illegal system -- one that has evolved over decades and may require many more to unwind.